A Sweet, Sticky Story

"Anu Lakhan tells an unlikely but passionate tale of sweet red pepper jelly; plus two tempting recipe books"

–Illustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini Seereeram

The recipe called for pectin. The name sounded familiar.
A kind of sugar? Pectin. Something made from fins? No. Pectin, I discovered,
makes jams jammy and jellies jelly. Oh.

I was not the only one to whom this was news — I had to repeat the description
at almost every grocery I visited. A grocery clerk who is asked for an item
he has never heard of will often treat the request with something like disbelief.
He’ll ask you to repeat the name a few times, as if really trying to place,
from his vast mental catalogue, your desired article. Then, when he is sure
that he has never heard of it, there will be a narrowing of the eyes, a curling
of the lip, as if to say, “Surely you jest. There can be no such thing. For
here I am, font of all grocery lore and I, I have never heard of this pectin.”
And then, the crushing, final “Nah, we don’t have that.”

Jam and its kin, I used to believe, were born on supermarket shelves. And
since I didn’t much care for it, it could die there. I was perhaps the only
child in the world not afflicted with “jam hands”. Now, on a bright, indeed
sweltering, Saturday afternoon, I was trying to make jelly. The shop attendants’
disbelief that pectin existed was matched only by their incredulity that
anyone would want to make jelly.

The tale is passionate and, so, ultimately tragic. A dainty little jar of
sweet red pepper jelly found its way into the fridge at my office. I was
starving. It sat among the crackers and ham slices, glittering like a molten
gem. I tasted. I swooned.

At first, the taste buds were too overwhelmed (and a tad confused) to identify
any specifics. There was an idea of sweetness (but not too much), and of
tanginess (but not the hard contrast of a sweet-and-sour sauce). It didn’t
especially call to mind the peppers that gave it its name and colour. Instead,
it was rather like discovering a new and exciting fruit; it wasn’t the actual
flavours that were surprising, just the particular blend.

Over the next week, its original owner relinquished all claim on this jelly,
and for seven blissful days no sandwich, cracker, or, truth be told, spoon,
was safe. And this particular red pepper jelly was home-made. The trouble
was that the home was somewhere in Martha’s Vineyard — not one of the Caribbean’s
major trading partners. And I couldn’t find a local jelly that I felt the
same way about.

When, months later, another jar was sent to me via a holidaying friend, I
was determined not to fritter away the treasure, as I had before. I would
use it sparingly. I would protect it from marauding visitors. I . . . I .
. . dropped it after my first taste. Jar and self were shattered. I don’t
remember much after that, but my sister says that I knelt beside the glistening
red blob, muttering, “I think it’s still edible.”

“There’s glass in it,” she said.
“No,” I insisted. “It’s OK, see . . .”
They pulled me away.
The next day I decided that I would no longer be at the mercy of international
travel, or gravity. I would make my own red pepper jelly.

Thus began the pursuit of pectin, and, because pure, blind hope will not
go unrewarded, I eventually found it some half-dozen shops into my search.
My recipe called for liquid pectin, but here was a small, unassuming box
of powdered pectin. This close cousin would have to do.

Perhaps because my initial search had been long and hard; perhaps because
the blood of countless jam-making Caribbean women flows rich in my veins;
or probably because it just is, the actual jelly-making process was painless
and unremarkable. Making jelly, it turns out, is one of those rare things
that appear more difficult than they really are. I chopped and blended huge
bell peppers, the impossible red of siren lights and lipstick. A great pot
for which I never imagined I’d have a use was popped on the stove, and a
shocking amount of sugar tossed in. And then I stirred. It boiled. The pectin
was added. I stirred on. It was light, cheerful work. Nothing like the agony
of stirring fudge.

While I stirred, a handful of glass jars boiled to sterilisation. I dreamed
of gingham, and wondered if I had a pair of pinking shears. The mixture was
supposed to come to a rolling boil. I loved that; I’d never heard of it before.
How dramatic and impressive it sounded. I was, of course, terrified that
it would fail to achieve this state — or, worse, that it would, and I would
not recognise the moment of truth when it was upon me. But in the end, roll
it did, and there could be no mistaking it. The surface of the liquid undulated
gently, then more insistently, looking, not just a little, as though it were
alive. Off the fire, into the jars, and thence to the refrigerator. Then
I went out, because I couldn’t bear the suspense of waiting to see if it
would set.

And it did.

I almost wept. Relatives were phoned to be given the opportunity to congratulate
me. “Jelly,” I announced triumphantly, as I handed out the jars. Looks of
awe and veneration all round. They were impressed, not because they themselves
are not capable of far greater, more complicated feats, but because, like
the astonished store clerks, they’d never thought to make such a thing. It
was something you bought, like marshmallows or butter — maybe somebody knows
how to make them, maybe they’re sent from heaven.

Of course, as is their wont, the pots brought me back down to earth. I cannot
doubt that the skill required to wash a sticky pot the size of a small car
in a kitchen sink smaller than the average place-mat is entirely responsible
for the general lack of jam-making these days. But for those fearless (or
bored) enough to try it, achieving a respectable, edible jelly can be a slightly
magical experience.

When I made my life-changing decision, I didn’t actually have a sweet red
pepper jelly recipe. I did, however, have Internet access. What I used was
a combination of several recipes I discovered online — cutting back a bit
here, adding a bit there. I think it worked.

Not just a pretty cover

Contemporary Caribbean Cooking
Sally Miller (Wordsmith International, ISBN 976-8079-75-4)

Despite its glamorous coffee-table looks, Contemporary Caribbean Cooking
is an eminently practical handbook for those less experienced in the culinary
arts, presenting tried-and-true family recipes with cheerful confidence.
“Speed is what today’s busy cooks need,” remarks Sally Miller, and wherever
possible she suggests shortcuts, or recommends the use of labour-saving equipment.
At her most daring, she offers recipes for such delicacies as shrimp, avocado,
and paw paw salad, or mango mousse with passion fruit sauce, but most of
her dishes are straightforward, wholesome fare, like fish fried Caribbean-style,
chicken pelau, or that perennial children’s favourite, marble cake. She includes
many Caribbean specialities, like souse, and ackee and saltfish, and the
glowing photography, by Artie Colantuono, makes even something as plain as
yam in butter sauce look like a long-awaited feast.

Philip Sander

Aye, there’s the rum

Caribbean Cocktails
Jennifer Trainer Thompson (Ten Speed Press, ISBN 1-58008-364-1)

“With a few sips you can see the aquamarine waters, feel the gentle breeze,
and start swaying like a palm frond. These drinks transport you.” So claims
Jennifer Trainer Thompson in her introduction to this colourful, thirst-inducing
guide to tropical mixology. Familiar favourites like the piña colada and
old-fashioned rum punch mingle with new-fangled concoctions like the Green
Frog and the Kick ’em Jenny (named for the submerged volcano near Grenada
— let that be a warning!), all arranged according to the presiding spirit.
Of course, some of us still think the ultimate tropical drink is nothing
less than a simple, classic gin and tonic; the Sticky Wicket is a tempting
variation, though. The fun concludes with a selection of recipes for cocktail-friendly
finger foods. From the lush photos to the list of recommended music to accompany
each tipple, this is an unabashed catalogue of imbibable indulgences.

Philip Sander

RECIPE: STICKY WICKET

1 teaspoon granulated sugar
4 dashes Angostura bitters
2 ounces gin
1/2 lemon, freshly squeezed
2 ounces club soda
cucumber slice, for garnish

Fill a rocks glass with ice. Add the sugar, bitters, and gin. Squeeze in
the lemon juice, then drop the rind into the glass. Cover and shake well
to dissolve the sugar, then top with club soda. Garnish with the cucumber
slice.

RECIPE: SWEET RED PEPPER JELLY

6 red bell peppers
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup lemon juice
5 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
chili powder
1 ounce powdered pectin, or 6 ounces liquid pectin

Big, brilliant red bell peppers are what you want. The more lurid the better.
Never mind what makes them that colour, it probably can’t do any more damage
than the five cups of sugar. And, incidentally, if you prefer a mind-numbingly
sweet jelly, add another half or three quarters of a cup of sugar.

Wash the peppers and remove the seeds. Chop them in a food processor; they
need to be pulpy, so hand chopping won’t do. Add the lemon juice and cider
vinegar to the pulp. I use apple cider vinegar, because that happens to be
what I have handy (for keeping kitchen counters ant-free). In a very big
pot, mix the pulp with the sugar, salt, and as much chili powder as you think
you need. About a teaspoon is modest, increase at will, as long as it doesn’t
start to defeat the red pepper flavour.

A note on the size of the pot: these ingredients are not voluminous, but
a big pot is a good idea, because when you’re stirring any hot liquid of
unpredictable temperament it’s wise to keep a reasonable distance between
it and yourself. Stir steadily, but not vigorously, until it comes to a full
rolling boil. Remove from the heat, and add the pectin (whichever form you
managed to find).

Return to the heat, high for just over a minute, and then lowish for about five to seven minutes. Skim the foam.

Fill the jam jars you’ve already sterilised, leaving a half- to three-quarter-inch
space from the top. Cover tightly and let cool. Refrigerate when the jelly
is set.